I love learning about the creative process of others – I’ve absorbed all the writing rules I could find, and spent happy hours reading the interviews in The Paris Review. In the same spirit I thought I’d break down the process for one of my recent songs – Love, Or Leave It Alone (For Iris).
Everyone starts with an inkling of an idea for a song, and at some point later, has a finished product. That much, arbitrarily, all songwriters must agree on. The middle is harder to quantify – some refer to the muse striking, to telephone lines with God; for others it’s cerebral, about getting in the right headspace to forge new connections in your brain. The reason I’ve chosen Love, Or Leave It Alone (For Iris) is that, atypically for me, the route to the finished work breaks into several delineated steps.
It began with the melody. I had been tinkering on an arrangement for a punked-up version of Iris DeMent’s Let The Mystery Be. The melody that became both the vocal and glockenspiel line was the guitar solo I wrote for this abandoned cover. When the concept for ‘X’ was hatched, I went looking through my demos and re-discovered it. Using the same stock I-IV-V-I progression, I refashioned the solo segment to be the entire song. It was a new way of working for me – like sampling, starting with a base material and reworking it into something completely different. That’s why Iris is named in the title – my version of the literary ‘with apologies’ used when a work is based on another.
For me, lyric-writing starts with a strong opening line or title. Until that comes, I’m powerless – I had the chord progression for Faux Faux Amis song Don’t Grow Up Too Fast for years until I found words worthy to be paired to it. The process for this song was compounded by three factors:
1) I couldn’t wait – I only had weeks before I needed to teach it to the band,
2) the strict and windy AABCCB rhyming structure I felt the melody suggested, and
3) I knew I wanted the song to be a boy/girl co-lead vocal.
I could have capitulated on the third point, but my gut wouldn’t let me budge. Not only a boy/girl co-lead vocal, mind, it had to be a “couples bickering” song. These are, to me, the pinnacle of duets. The most famous example is almost certainly Meatloaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light. Other favourites are Johnny Cash and June Carter’s Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man and Jackson, John Prine and Iris DeMent’s In Spite Of Ourselves (Iris again!), The White Stripes and Holly Golightly’s It’s True That We Love One Another, and The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairtytale Of New York. Most feel like they’re between couples in long-term relationships – they get me where I live. I’ve written a couple of my own over the years, including for The Bluffhearts. I knew once Mel and Catherine joined FFA that I’d want to start writing them again.
But the model for this particular song is not any of the above – it’s The Specials I Can’t Stand It. Uniquely, the duet is not call and response – it’s Terry Hall and Rhoda Dakar singing the same thing to each other at once. It’s ingenious in its mirroring of actual fights in a relationship, when people tend to echo each other (“I’m not the selfish one, you’re the selfish one!”).
I decided I would demur writing the lyrics until I was in New York City, confident its bright lights would inspire me to new heights of lyrical accomplishment. The only problem was once I got there, I was in holiday mode, and had no inclination to work on lyrics. Eventually, I forced myself up early one morning and, armed with notebook and pen, went for a walk around Brooklyn. Lots of people (including luminaries like Nick and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) attest that walking is one of the best ways to spur creativity. I’d hoped to colour the song with experiences from the trip – references to streets we’d walked down, or diners we’d visited. None of that was forthcoming. In fact, the first verse I made it through had nothing to do with my intentions for the song, and everything about just getting a handle on the rhyme structure. It’s complete fluff, and utterly cringeworthy, but I wrote it down all the same to get the juices flowing:
I call my dreams the kingdom of nonsense
It’s where all logic hides
Divide and multiply
Most of the rhymes are slanted, and the syntax is forced. Crystals were on my mind as a result of reading J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World while in NYC, so the best that can be said is it bears the subliminal influence of my trip. ‘Kingdom of nonsense’ is a Martin Amis reference, but so obscure no one would notice.
The next attempt was slightly better – it was definitely about a relationship, and the rhymes had improved:
When you see children, you see the future
My crystal ball’s less clear
We both were kids
Know what they did
I just can’t hide my fear
There’s an honesty to the sentiment, and the suggestion of a difference of opinion (if not a full-blown argument), but it’s still clunky – the ‘crystal ball’ line especially – and it didn’t give me anywhere to go in the second verse. I still like the volte-face in “we both were kids/know what they did”, but it wasn’t enough. I’m also still missing an internal rhyme in the first line.
The last attempt that morning had enough of an engine to get me through two verses:
Lived in the desert since I remember
Waiting on climate change
It’s just red dust
From dawn to dusk
And then you came my way
It started raining first time you kissed me
We should have bought a boat
Now every swoon
Brings a monsoon
Grab anything that floats
Written down, I admit it looks bad – the perky melody helps tremendously to sell it. And while I got two reasonably coherent verses out of it, it’s goopy stuff, and I’ve completely failed to deliver on the bickering tone I wanted. “Climate change” is too technical a phrase for a dippy love song, especially when it doesn’t even help fill out a rhyme – I knew when I wrote it I would need to replace that part. I like the desert-rain-love analogy, but it’s well-worn. And, again, it has absolutely nothing to do with my time in NYC (if there was any doubt, ‘red dust’ definitively places the story in Australia).
You’ll notice I began all of these without the one thing I insisted above that I needed – a strong opening line or title. The result is they all fell flat, and in hindsight, were always going to fall flat. I was stumbling around, looking for a foothold – but I had to try, if only to get into the headspace to recognise the right line or title when it came. That night, it arrived.
Lou and I visited Skinny Dennis – a Brooklyn hipster dive bar – to watch Pete Donnelly. His performance was great, but it was a phrase painted on the wall behind him that stuck with me – LOVE IT, LEAVE IT. There was no further context, but it felt strong. I played with it against the melody and found my title.
Love, or leave it alone.
Once I had those five words, I was more relieved than when I’d penned the whole two previous verses – I knew the hard work had been done and the rest would fall into place. That one line alone unpacks into an entire argument between a couple. The remainder of the lyrics were written at home, drawing on a boozy Brooklyn night when Lou and I had an argument over nothing. We only argue after concerted drinking – too much alcohol brings out a bad combination of my pompousness and her stubborn nature. To give it balance, I wrote it from her perspective, delivering the words to myself, the drunken boor that won’t let go until he’s achieved his meaningless and pyrrhic victory.
There comes an hour when wine turns sour
Nothing good comes when you take that tone
You’re always right
So why even fight?
Love, or leave it alone
The bar is spinning but you think you’re winning
Your arguments bore to the bone
You won’t let up
I’ve had enough
Love, or leave it alone
I had the rhyme structure, the bickering tone, connections to New York, a strong hook, and it’s honest. I like the phonetic subtext of “love, or” as well – said aloud, it could be “lover, leave it alone”, several degrees sweeter than the ultimatum of the actual line.